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Fair Ellen-A Remembrance

Sunday, June 25, 2017

October 15, 2015
I could tell it was her 500 yards away, because she was so small, and her head never went up quite right, or as high as it should. 
I was always glad to see her, glad, I guess, that she'd survived another week, month, year, or minute.
My heart followed her all year long, for nine years. 

Life is hard enough for a whitetail who's born perfect. 

But there was something going on with Ellen, that looked to me like a birth defect.

Her high-domed forehead, her crooked eyes, the swing and slant of her head.

No, the girl wasn't right, and I loved her fiercely for it, and for her spirit that put her shoulder to shoulder with does a third larger than she, and duking it out for her place in her little herd.

When a cretin killed her with his cruel arrow in November, 2016, giving her to the coywolves who reduced her to a small pile of bones in the hayfield

something in me couldn't let her go. I went out there with a bucket and took her head, but not before the coy-wolves chewed off her nasal bones. 

I'm a long way past caring if anyone thinks that's weird. If you're here and reading, you're ready for weird. Science Chimps don't care if people think they're weird. The need to know overwhelms.

I put Ellen's head in a bucket and kept it covered with water. I covered that with a cardboard box so it wouldn't smell too bad. And it didn't, because it was winter, and it was out in the garage.

On warm days I'd dump it and put in fresh water. Other than that, I let it go. This is a process called "maceration," and having done it with a gorgeous 8-point buck head (not the one pictured below), I know water to be the greatest cleanser and purifier of all. 

All you have to do is give it time.

Along about mid-May, she was ready to come out. That malodorous bucket of water, decanted and rinsed,  gave a little piece of Ellen back to me. 

After a couple of days in the May sunshine she was clean as a whistle.

I considered her asymmetrical eye sockets

and the leftward sweep of her entire skull.

Her teeth were in remarkably good shape, I thought, for a doe of at least 9 years.

Her domed forehead stands out in profile.

 But wait. There's something extra, something flat out weird going on at the back of her skull. What's that unit sort of dripping off the back?

Oh my God. Her atlas vertebra is fused to her skull. This vertebra, which should be free-moving and articulated and separated by a cartilage pad from the skull proper, is anything but. No wonder Ellen couldn't raise her head! And no wonder it pointed off to the side!

For contrast, here's a normal whitetail skull (below). 

Occipital condyles, in place and normal. Not fused to the atlas vertebra and drooling off the back of his skull. 

So Ellen's foramen magnum is about 2" farther down her spine than it would normally be. 

My friend Boneman (Bruce Mohn, who will be forever remembered for the dinosaur talon he made for my dino-crazy Liam) asked his colleague Lawrence Witmer, a vertebrate functional morphologist at Ohio University, about such a deformity, and Dr. Witmer was kind enough to go into OSU's collection and photograph this somewhat similar doe skull. A partial fusion, not as dramatic as Ellen's. Dr. Witmer advised that this can be the result of an injury or a congenital condition. I note the same domed cranium in this animal that Ellen displayed, and I'm going to guess they both were born this way.

Ah Ellen. Even in death you teach me. It comforts me to take you back from cruel people and the ivory teeth of scavengers,

to keep a bit of you safe in the studio, where I so often sat and watched you come shyly to the spruce for corn.

There will never be another like you.

If you are just stumbling onto Ellen, and you want her whole story, and you have an entire box of Kleenex handy, read "Love Lies Bleeding."  It starts out talking about morning glories and then goes to oil and gas drilling and finally comes around to the idiotic way that I, and the world, lost Ellen. Then I give you links to ALL the Ellen posts, in order. It's good, it's worth reading.


Weird in the best way. Ellen did a magnificent job of beating the odds...and you showed us the back story so we can respect her even more.

Thank you for saving that piece of Ellen and showing us what she looked like under that fur. She really had such amazing strength and perseverance given the bent and crooked wackiness of her bones. Is it crazy to love a deer, maybe... but here I am from afar, still a fan of her crooked little being.

I don't usually get teary about posts - even your wonderful ones - but this one left me with tears. I'm grateful Ellen was strong enough to survive and teach us all for so long, but in these days of such cruelty and hate, she seems to mean even more than before. I appreciate greatly her survival and your many lessons learned from her! Thank you for continuing to share. I know it isn't always easy in a busy life. But know you and Ellen and the Blue Jays are touching many!

It was a pleasure to help you out on this mystery, Julie! Over the years of looking at your posts of Ellen, I wondered what was going on with her skeletally. And now, thanks to your perseverance, we've got a little window into that. I am curious now about the doming of the forehead and what that might mean.

I'm sure you're aware, but for the readers, maceration in water employs bacteria. It isn't simply water that does the cleaning, but it does make it easier for the bacteria to do their job. Osteologists employ a number of maceration agents to aid in the cleansing of bones including bacteria, dermestid beetles, mealworms (which are a larval beetle), fly larvae (maggots) and caterpillars (the India flour moth's larvae do a good job). Folks who do maceration all have favorite techniques. I tend to favor bacterial maceration, though it does tend to leave the skeleton in pieces.

Her gentle, sweet look makes me cry. Julie, thank you for giving her honor.

Oh Ellen.
You made me cry again.

Tears. And a shiver at the horror of her loss all over again.

I am glad that you went back for Ellen's skull. It gives so much insight into her character. Despite her deformities, and the fact that Nature can be cruel to anyone who is different, she managed to live to old age -- something even deer in perfect condition cannot do very often. She produced many fine offspring, taught us about perseverance, and touched our hearts. If you are weird, Julie, then I am weird in the same way. I would have gone back for it, too.

Posted by Anonymous June 25, 2017 at 6:20 PM

As it should be, with you, in your studio. Not weird at all. XO

This comment has been removed by the author.

Thank you for this post; it was fascinating to learn more of Ellen's story. "Not a bit weird," I say as I sit here with a box of sunbleached sheep bones in my closet. We raised sheep when I was a child, and my mom gathered these 40 years ago. The intent for decades has been to put her back together on a base. It makes me happy just to have the bones at this point (maybe the way you feel about honoring sweet Ellen?). Bones have always fascinated me, and I loved cleaning the bones and putting the biology-class bullfrog Hercules back together just right during my high school days 41 years ago. Hercules "lives" at my mom's house and one day will move to mine. Weird? Thanks so much for prompting reflection about how much my 90 year mom has influenced me in atypical areas of life. Kim in PA

Oh my goodness! I have not seen the other posts about Ellen, but I LOVED reading this, even though it was so sad in many ways. I am so glad Ellen had you to watch and share her story with us. How interesting it was to see the pictures and get the explanation about her probable congenital defect!! Thank you!!

What a fascinating blog. Thanks for sharing your ability to see much better than most of us and to care enough to work to find the answers Thanks.

If you are just stumbling onto Ellen, and you want her whole story, and you have an entire box of Kleenex handy, read "Love Lies Bleeding." It starts out talking about morning glories and then goes to oil and gas drilling and finally comes around to the idiotic way that I, and the world, lost Ellen. Then I give you links to ALL the Ellen posts, in order. It's good, it's worth reading.

Just in tears. That's all I'm going to say.

Ellen is where she belongs, with someone who cares for her.

Posted by Anonymous June 26, 2017 at 10:53 AM

I thank you for the things I learn from reading your blog! You are one cool lady.

It is wonderful to know the facts behind Ellen's odd carriage. The offspring you think are hers don't seem to carry the trait.

A pox on meth smokin, amoral, waste of space, callous POS! I know it's wrong but i feel slighty better in saying it. #judgemeifyoumust

I don't know that choosing to harvest your meat from the wild rather than from a Styrofoam and cellophane package in the grocery store isle should classify somebody as a 'cretin'. Was Ellen killed and left to the coywolves or harvested and put to use feeding a family? I also don't know that being shot with an arrow is any more cruel than being hit by an automobile; which is what happens to many deer when they are not managed through hunting and overpopulate. An interesting book that delves into the duality of this is Nature Wars. I'm sorry for your loss. I enjoy your work. I'm envious that you are able to live a life in the country that is so entwined with the wildlife there. I think this entry is somewhat unbalanced and one-sided. I guess you're the one who is writing it so you're the one who gets to tell it like you see it.

@Raymond Rawlings, Ellen was wasted. Dropped and left. I had a link to that post in this one, but just in case you missed it, here's the post about her murder.
And murder most foul it was.
Might want to read it.


My apologies. I should've read the other posts before commenting. I am against wantonly killing for fun. I've come across Swift foxes and other animals dropped at night by thrill seekers with a spotlight and have been upset and saddened by it. The picked over bones in the photograph look very much like a carcass that has been deboned and left. I mistakenly thought it had been harvested this way. Thanks for what you do. I checked out your Baby Birds book from the library yesterday. There is a nest of house finches in our hanging flower basket out front right now.

I'm totally cool with legal hunting too but this was nothing short of a drive up shooting: 1. using a motorized vehicle in pursuit of game.2 failure to tag 3.leaving game to rot. 4.trespassing.Unknown to me is whether licensened;legal shooting hours;legal season; or whether it is legal to use a crossbow. In ND where i am from only disabled hunter can use these. The actions of these individuals is not only criminal and indefensible; their actions put hunters in a bad light. Please do check out Julie's original post. @RamondRawlings

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